Ban on offal went beyond official advice

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THE FORMER Tory Agriculture minister John MacGregor yesterday told the inquiry investigating the BSE crisis that he went beyond the scope of scientific advice to ban certain types of beef offal from human consumption.

Mr MacGregor and his deputy, Sir Donald Thompson, both decided to ignore the advice of officials and announced the offal ban in June 1989. They took the decision despite concern that it would cause a media outcry.

The inquiry into "mad cow disease", sitting in London, heard from Mr MacGregor that he originally took a cautious approach over BSE after taking up his role in 1987. He wanted scientific evidence before making decisions to protect the Government from any threat of legal action.

As a result, in April 1988 he set up a working party of experts, under Sir Richard Southwood of Oxford University, to report to him on the issue. The party's final report, in February 1989, included a recommendation that those offals should not be included in baby food. Mr MacGregor said he grew increasingly concerned about this recommendation and decided to take a "belt-and-braces approach" by banning offals, such as the spinal cord, brains, spleen and tonsils, from all human foods. He called a meeting of officials from his own department and the Department of Health in 1989 to tell them of this.

"It was controversial," Mr MacGregor told the inquiry. "One reason my officials were concerned was because it put the issue up more strongly and could result in a flurry of concern, which we managed to avoid. It was not popular with some of the industry. It was a very clear example of where the ministry was acting in the best interests of food safety and not just taking the producers' line."

He met Sir Richard the following day to discuss the fact that there was not scientific evidence to support such a ban.

The two finally agreed on the move and decided that it would be presented as being the most effective way of dealing with the baby-food issue because it would ensure that no such material got into the food chain.

Sir Donald, who was in charge of food safety at the time, said they had expected an outcry. "We expected to get the same press as the ban on beef-on-the-bone got recently," he said. "At the end of the day, it was an ultra-safe measure."